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You've been designated a foreign terrorist organization. Now what?
The U.S. officially labels members of the Haqqani network terrorists. Don't expect that to turn the tide in Afghanistan
 
D.B. Grady
D.B. Grady

Last week, the U.S. State Department placed the Haqqani network on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. This comes after years of violence by the group against American, NATO, and Afghan forces. The U.S. action is also one more jab at Pakistan; its military intelligence arm, the ISI, has notoriously close ties with the terrorist network. One can hardly think of a group more deserving of such special attention than Haqqani, and they have certainly lived up to their new title. The day after the designation was made public, a suicide bomber in Kabul — suspected to be affiliated with Haqqani — detonated himself not far from NATO headquarters. "I saw about 12 bodies, all were civilians," The New York Times reported one witness as saying. "I saw a little girl whose legs were blown away in the back of the police truck." The bomber himself has been described as a "young boy," and at least six children are among the dead.

In the 1980s, the Haqqani family fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and forged close ties with the CIA and ISI. But relations worsened when Jalalludin Haqqani joined the wretched Taliban government in 1996 as its Minister of Tribal Affairs. After the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Haqqani network remained loyal to the Taliban. Today, it is at the heart of the insurgency in Afghanistan, and a major obstacle to post-NATO security in the war-torn country. With the State Department's action, it seems the decision has been made that the only way out is through. This is certainly a victory for David Petraeus, director of the CIA, who has long warned of the threat posed by the network.

Is anyone convinced this new strategy will work? Afghans certainly aren't.

But practically, what does it mean to formally designate a group as a terrorist organization? As a legal matter, it prevents U.S. citizens from providing any type of "material support" or "expert advice" to organization elements. There's a good chance that if the National Security Agency catches your phone number pinging a known member of the group, you're going to have trouble boarding airplanes for a very long time. Likewise, U.S. financial institutions are obligated to freeze and report any assets belonging to the terrorist network. Perhaps more consequentially, the international community is put on notice that the United States can mobilize any or all of its forces, agencies, and capabilities to do whatever it wants in the fight against the group in question.

Being put on the list of foreign terrorist organizations is probably the easiest way to meet an actual member of Delta Force. But other than a deadly nighttime raid, is there any way to get off of the list? Supposing, of course, you change your ways and allegiances. The answer is yes, but it's a lever that's almost never pulled. Two years after designation, leaders of the network in question can file an appeal with the U.S. State Department and provide proof of some newfound enlightenment. Absent that, every five years the Secretary of State is obliged to reevaluate the designation. Congress can step in, but given the criminal negligence of lawmakers to express even an atom of interest in serious oversight in the war on terrorism, don't expect anything anytime soon.

And why would anyone take to the floor and defend a terrorist group, anyway? In the case of Haqqani, not everyone agrees with the decision to blacklist. According to Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the designation will "play into the hands of those opposed to a conciliatory approach." They noted that the assumption that Haqqani is "an irreconcilable, rigidly ideological enemy should be questioned." To be sure, in Afghanistan, switching sides during conflicts is routine and often based on pragmatism and basic survival. This is why U.S. and Afghan officials have conducted high-level talks with so-called "moderate" elements of the Taliban. In 2001, such meetings would have been unthinkable and appalling; we've learned a lot since then.

But just as Afghans are pragmatic about choosing the more advantageous sides in a conflict, so too are defense and intelligence officials about applying serious force to problems that have a timetable. In this case, the date is December 2014, when the last U.S. forces in the region are slated to depart. (Special Operations Forces will remain as part of the cleanup crew, helping to take out particularly noxious terrorist leaders.) At present, the idea that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police can pacify and secure their country without international assistance at or above present levels is, at best, inconsistent with reality. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to look a lot more like South Vietnam than Iraq. Gone, then, is a comprehensive, comprehensible counterinsurgency strategy; the plan now seems to be to wipe out as many enemy fighters as possible as quickly as possible. The foreign terrorist organization designation will help make that happen.

Is anyone convinced this new strategy will work? Afghans certainly aren't. The Associated Press reports that requests for asylum are up 34 percent in the last year. The real estate market is in a free-fall. Optimism has become an endangered species, and many expect the government — already corrupt and ineffective — to collapse following our exit. In the United States, during the rare moments that Americans give any thought to our continued presence in Afghanistan at all, the mood is grim: Only 27 percent favor the war. Worse still, and perhaps more disheartening: Only 31 percent believe we're even doing the right thing by being there. But we are there, adrift, our service members working diligently and dying at a rate of one every day, to say nothing of debilitating injuries and disfigurement. The president conspicuously avoids uttering the goal of "winning" the war, but merely ending it, and this White House seems to treat Afghanistan more as a political inconvenience than a problem in need of a solution, essentially condemning men and women in uniform to early deaths — but for what, exactly?

When Obama was elected, he took ownership of the war in Afghanistan, not reluctantly, as in the case of Iraq, but enthusiastically, pinning a fourth star on the capable General Stanley McChrystal and embracing a bold policy of counterinsurgency. Tens of thousands of troops were infused into the war effort. Counterproductive airstrikes were dialed back, and for the first time, conventional forces were embedded with villagers, and learned how best to win this thing. But at the first sign of trouble, all that went away. 

Now we have a new name on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. I place great faith in Director Petraeus at CIA, General Mattis at CENTCOM, and Admiral William McRaven at Special Operations Command. And if January 2015 brings a human rights catastrophe, it won't be a result of their actions, but of their commander-in-chief.

 

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